Q&A with Ben Loory, author of
TALES OF FALLING
A Penguin Paperback Original; On sale: September 5th, 2017; 9780143130109; $17.00
In trying to describe your stories, horror author Peter Straub said they’re written “like Bruno Schulz, if Schulz had been born to a left-handed Little League coach in Short Hills, New Jersey? Like Lydia Davis, if she’d been hatched from an egg?” Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, calls your work “equal parts Beckett and Twilight Zone.” How would you describe your stories in TALES OF FALLING AND FLYING?
I have no idea! When people ask, I usually just say “Oh, they’re just little stories,” and then I make a quick joke and try to sneak away. When people press me on the matter I do bring up the Twilight Zone—usually something like “they’re sort of like little Twilight Zone episodes, if they were done as Warner Brothers cartoons, which makes sense to me but people always look at me confused. My agent once characterized them as “children’s stories for grownups,” but that made me so mad I banned her from ever mentioning it again. (Though I suppose I can admit now, it does make a kind of sense.) Sometimes I tell people that they're like what stories would be if people wrote stories the way they'd actually tell them in a crowded bar, which again, makes sense to me, but I get some weird looks. Anyway, I don't know: they’re short, they’re fast, they’re fun, sometimes spooky, in my mind they’re always extremely brightly colored, and sometimes there are talking animals. How’s that?
The collection blends together a multitude of genres—from myth and fable to sci-fi to magical realism. How did you cultivate your writing sensibility and penchant for the marvelously strange?
Well, it wasn't on purpose! I wandered through life reading books and watching movies and then one day I started writing and here we are; who knows? I was always into space and cartoons and puppets and detectives and monsters and unsolved mysteries and Aesop's fables and the Arabian Nights, so I guess all that stuff just naturally comes out, but wasn't everybody into all that stuff? I guess maybe later on I rebelled a little when they tried to make us care about stories about people getting cancer and divorced and stuff like that in high school. I never understood why stories had to become so colossally boring just because we grew up and had to get jobs. It seemed so unfair! So mostly I think when I write I'm just trying to amuse myself—I hunt around in my brain for something that makes me smile—an image, a notion, a line of dialogue, whatever—and when I find it, I don't think, I just sit down and start writing. I don't really even think of myself as the person who writes my stories, I think of myself more as the guy who gets out of the way. The stories emerge from somewhere deep inside and I sort of jot them down, try to capture then. And then, after that, I'm the guy who sits there and painstakingly edits. But my primary function is as a kind of butterfly hunter. These things flit through and I chase after and try to grab them. Sometimes I get lucky and they end up on the wall.
After graduating from Harvard, you went on to receive an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. How did you transition into short story writing, and what is the biggest difference between crafting a short story and screenplay?
Like pretty much everything that's ever happened in my life—or at least all the good stuff—it happened by accident. I wrote screenplays for years with a writing partner until one day we suddenly noticed that we hated each other and had completely different taste in everything, so we split up. I went off to write a screenplay on my own, and to prepare (or so I thought) I decided I'd sit down and just quickly write out a whole bunch of story ideas. Which I did—I just sat there for weeks thinking up ideas and writing them out as little outlines, or "treatments," as I called them back then. I wrote maybe 20 or 30 or 40 of them until one day I was looking them over, trying to decide which one to expand in a screenplay, when it suddenly hit me that I really liked them just as they were, as these short little stories that didn't mess around, just told you what happened in this kind of light-hearted but sometimes shocking way, and then moved on! So then, just like that, I abandoned screenwriting and became a short story writer, basically overnight. I immediately felt about a thousand times better about my life and my work and the whole world besides. It was amazing! Probably the best thing that ever happened.
As for the biggest difference between writing a short story and a screenplay, number one, I would say, is that I'm good at writing stories! I was never very good at writing screenplays. With screenplays you have to spend all this time plotting things out, writing outlines, putting stuff on notecards and tacking them to the wall, moving them around the wall, staring at them, moving them around again, going to meetings and talking to people, arguing, moving the cards again-- it's a very talk-and-notecard-centric process. You iron out the whole story and then, once all the life and excitement has been completely drained away, you go off and sit down and write the thing out. It's like homework, it's awful, it's the worst thing in the world. Short story writing, on the other hand—you just sit in your chair and you get an idea and you type and you type and you type and you type and then bang!—just like that, there’s your story! Holy cow! And you never had to talk to anybody about it or write anything on a notecard. Of course then you have to edit it for 5, 6, 7, 8 weeks or months or years or whatever, but hey, that's okay, these things happen.
Regardless of genre or length, what does every great short story need?
Readers, really! That's about it. I feel like anything else anyone could say here could be so easily disproved by citing the example of at least one great story somewhere. There's a million different stories in a million different styles and everybody loves some and hates some and thinks some shouldn't even count as "real" stories—it's a great big wide world and there are absolutely no rules! Or at least, if there are, I'm not gonna be the one to chisel them in stone. Because then I'd have to ignore myself, and that would make my life very hard. Rules are for people who are trying to write screenplays! Stories are for diving into space.
Author Ransom Riggs says your stories are “little gifts, strange and moving and wonderfully human.” You accomplish a lot in sometimes as little as a page or two. How challenging is it to craft such short fiction, packing enough in to tell a compelling story?
Oh, it's impossible! It can never be done. Every single time, it seems a hopeless task. But then, somehow, sometimes, through some strange mixture of madness, luck, too much caffeine, ineptitude, visiting genius, hard work, or just plain stubbornness, you get a break—there's a chink in the armor of the apparent impossibility, and you stick your crowbar in and wiggle it around and suddenly there's a flash of light and the whole thing breaks open and there's a highway leading off! Or at least a murky, fog-enshrouded path. Then you jump through and run down the path as fast as you can and you pray you can make it to the end. And sometimes you fall down and roll into a ditch, but sometimes you make it! At least a few feet. On a good day.
TALES OF FALLING AND FLYING is populated with unforgettable protagonists, like a man who eat rocks, a cephalopod obsessed with the sun, a bonsai tree-cutting president James K. Polk, and an artist who only paints gorillas. Despite their strangeness, your stories are rooted in history, science, and art. Outside of literature, in what areas do you draw inspiration from?
Life? All of it? All areas? Maybe not reality television, but pretty much everything else. There's nothing on this planet that's not absolutely fascinating; the whole place is bonkers and human beings are such sad and hilarious wonders. You just sit by the side of the road and watch the cars go by and there's enough material to write 70,000 stories. I spend a lot of time reading Wikipedia and wandering around looking at bugs and trees and clouds. I watch movies, tons of movies (I like horror movies and cartoons and Turner Classic Movies and mid-century art films and documentaries about fish and how things are made) and read comic books and newspapers and listen to all kinds of music and spend a lot of time on Twitter just marveling at the insanity. Inspiration is not hard to find! The hard part is doing the actual work.
While defying an “everyday” logic, your stories often begin with everyday experiences—neighbors moving in next door, people taking the Subway to work, etc. You make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Is this this your goal for every story?
I wouldn't say that's the goal, really—it's more like the starting point? The modus operandi? I mean, I can't just take a story about some normal people and have it be a story about some normal people doing some kind of normal people thing, I mean what would be the point of that? So you take some normal people doing some kind of normal people thing and then somehow you wake it up, you find some way to twist it that makes the whole thing light up, and then, once it's lit, you go in and find the heart. You find some kind of dark spot, you slip down an alley, there's usually a hidden staircase, you hear a monster howling somewhere off in the distance, and then things start getting good! Once the tension mounts you know you're onto something and pretty soon if you're lucky and manage to fight your way through, you come out smack dab inside the heart of the character. That's where the ending is and that's where you're trying to get. But the strangeness/familiarity of the setup is never the point, that's just the point of entry, how you wedge your way in. The point of the story is the way you feel at the end; the particular flavor of existence you find once you get to the center of the maze and look around. The stillness where you see reality for what it is. The return to the real you'd forgotten.